New travel adventure for MSR writer

Former Soviet republic a hidden treasure

The 2006 “Adventures in China” column series by Jennifer Harvey (formerly Holder) was an account of the writer’s life as a foreign teacher — and an African American woman — in Hangzhou, China. Harvey has moved on to a new land, as she details in the following article.

Here I am walking along the wide boulevard (Bulvar), a beautifully scenic two-mile stretch of paved walkway along the Caspian Sea in the city of Baku in the country of Azerbaijan. The gale-force winds, typical of this time of year, blow my hat off my head, and as I run to retrieve it a little boy awkwardly glides over on his new roller skates and snatches it before it blew farther away. I thank him and ponder, “Life certainly serves up treasures!”

A year ago, I would have been hard-pressed to locate Azerbaijan on a globe; today it’s my home. A year ago, I was struggling to make myself understood in the Chinese language; yet now as I stare at the largest saltwater lake in the world, I’m embarking on a new adventure and studying Azeri language.

Formerly one of the republics of the USSR, with a total population of approximately nine million, Azerbaijan is a 19-year-old independent republic.

With its eastern coast on the Caspian Sea, it shares land borders with Russia, Georgia, Armenia and Iran. Ilham Aliyev has been the elected president of the republic since 2003 when he succeeded his father Heydar Aliyev.

Despite a reported low-level conflict with neighboring Armenia, Azerbaijan is a stable place in which to live. The currency is the Azerbaijani manat (AZN); as of today the exchange rate is U.S. $1 equals 0.80 AZN.

Baku, where my husband and I live, is the capital of Azerbaijan with its first documented reference of settlement in the fifth century. The city is acknowledged as being the oldest center of the modern oil industry — the earliest oil refining experiments were conducted in the 1830s, and the first oil well was completed and operational in the region in 1848.

Oil became the main factor in the development of Baku, which today is a large modern city. Along with ancient Eastern architecture dating back to the sixth century, Baku has numerous blocks of modern houses, wide streets, shopping centers, parks and gardens. Museums, theaters, philharmonic orchestras, film, television and other Western and Eastern cultural artifacts are all present in Baku.

On my daily walks, I observe significantly more males than females casually having tea in the numerous tea houses set up in courtyards and gardens throughout the city. They sip tea from small pear-shaped glasses and nibble on sweets as they chat for hours and play dominoes or backgammon — a very popular way for men to spend their leisure time.

Fashionably dressed women, many wearing tight-fitting jeans and t-shirts, hurry along with children as cute as children are all over the world. Few older women and seldom a younger woman are dressed in traditional Muslim attire reflecting the majority religion of the country.

At the underground train (Metro) station closest to my apartment regularly sits a blind woman playing a kamancha, her cup strategically placed for donations.

Her kamancha, a traditional stringed instrument, looks like a small bulbous cello, resembles the West African kora (which looks similar to the Chinese er hu), and produces sounds akin to the violin.

I purchase organic fruits and vegetables in the farmers’ markets (bazaar), as I did in Hangzhou, China; and in the large chain supermarkets, local as well as imported products are available. I eat in fancy restaurants as well as in small neighborhood cafes; and when I yearn for American fare, McDonald’s fast food satisfies my craving.

With the exception of random puzzled stares, in a city of two million people, one Black woman in Baku is noticeable but does not attract undue curiosity.

The treasure is not necessarily Baku or London or Hangzhou, or any specific city or country: It is the opportunity to be a part of the global community and to participate in foreign cultures. The treasure is my life.

Jennifer Harvey welcomes reader responses to
jenniferharvey.sharedstories@gmail.com. Readers may also read Jennifer Harvey’s Shared Stories column at www.hicenter.cn.